Brief History of Howard University

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In November 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, members of the First Congregational Society of Washington considered establishing a theological seminary for the education of African-American clergymen. Within a few weeks, the concept expanded to include a provision for establishing a University. Within two years, the University consisted of the colleges of Liberal Arts and Medicine. The new institution was named for General Oliver O. Howard, a Civil War hero who was both a founder of the University and, at the same time, commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau.

The University charter as enacted by Congress and subsequently approved by President Andrew Johnson on March 2, 1867, designated Howard University as “a University for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences.” The Freedmen’s Bureau provided most of the early financial support of the University. In 1879, Congress approved a special appropriation for the University. The charter was amended in 1928 to authorize an annual federal appropriation for construction, development, improvement and maintenance of the University.

In 1926, when Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard’s first black president, assumed the presidency of Howard, the University was comprised of eight schools and colleges, none of which held national accreditation. The institution’s enrollment during this year stood at 1,700 and its budget at $700,000. By the time Johnson retired 34 years later, the University boasted of 10 schools and colleges, all fully accredited; 6,000 students; a budget of $8 million, the addition of 20 new buildings including an expanded physical plant; and a greatly enlarged faculty that included some of the most prominent black scholars of the day. Another key indicator of the University’s enhanced academic status was the 1955 inauguration of graduate programs that had the authority to grant the Ph.D degree.

Dr. Johnson’s successor was Dr. James M. Nabrit, Jr. who was previously Secretary of the University and Dean of the Law School. A leading constitutional lawyer and educator, Dr. Nabrit established at Howard in 1938, what is generally considered the first systematic course in civil rights in an American law school.

In 1969, Dr. Nabrit was succeeded by Dr. James E. Cheek, who had previously served as President of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dr. Cheek retired in June 1989. He was followed by an Interim President, Dr. Carlton P. Alexis, a physician/administrator who had been the University’s Executive Vice President and before that, its Vice President for Health Affairs.

On December 16, 1989, the Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Dr. Franklyn G. Jenifer to head the University. Upon his inauguration, Dr. Jenifer became the first Howard alumnus to head the University in its 123-year history. Dr. Jenifer served through May 15, 1994, when the Board of Trustees appointed Dr. Joyce A. Ladner as interim President. Dr. Ladner was the former Vice President for Academic Affairs and had also served as a professor in the School of Social Work.

On April 22, 1995, the Howard University Board of Trustees appointed H. Patrick Swygert to be its 15th president. Mr. Swygert is also the fifth African-American to serve as the University’s chief executive officer. H. Patrick Swygert received his undergraduate degree in history from Howard in 1965 and his law degree, cum laude, from the University’s law school in 1968.

In May 2008, the Howard University Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau as the 16th president of Howard University, to lead the institution into a new phase of growth as the nation’s premier Historically Black College and University. Dr Ribeau began his tenure on August 1, 2008.

Today, Howard University is one of only 48 U.S. private, Doctoral/Research-Extensive universities, comprising 12 schools and colleges with 10,500 students enjoying academic pursuits in more than 120 areas of study leading to undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees. The University continues to attract the nation’s top students and produces more on-campus African-American Ph.D.s than any other university in the world. Since 1998, the University has produced a Rhodes Scholar, A Truman Scholar, six Fulbright Scholars and nine Pickering Fellows.

In addition to President H. Patrick Swygert, Howard’s notable alumni include: the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; the first African-American governor L. Douglas Wilder; Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison; Savage Holdings LLC CEO and Howard Board of Trustees Chairman Frank Savage; Emmy Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad; opera singer Jessye Norman; actress, producer and director Debbie Allen; the first African-American president of the American College of Surgeons, Dr. LaSalle Leffall, Jr.; attorney, civil rights leader and Wall St. executive Vernon Jordan; former mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young; and the first female mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin. A list of Howard distinguished faculty members through the years reads like a “Who’s Who in Black America.” Among them: Ralph J. Bunche, Political Science; Charles R. Drew, Medicine; E. Franklin Frazier, Sociology; Alain J. Locke, Literature; Carter G. Woodson, History; and Lois Mailou Jones, Art.

Select Bibliography

The University

  • Battle, Thomas C. and Clifford L. Muse, Jr. Howard in Retrospect: Images of the Capstone. Washington, DC: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, 1995.
  • Dyson, Walter Dyson. Howard University: The Capstone of Negro Education, A History: 1867-1940. Washington, DC: The Graduate School of Howard University, 1941.
  • Logan, Rayford W. Howard University: The First Hundred Years. New York: New York University Press, 1968.
  • Patton, William W. The History of Howard University, 1867-1888. Washington, DC: Printed at the Industrial Department of Howard University, 1896.
  • Robinson III, Harry G. and Hazel Ruth Edwards. The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University. Washington, DC: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, 1996.
    Watch the Long Walk video
  • Campus Virtual Tour

Departmental Histories


Howard Hall

Practice School Teachers, ca 1900

Howard Rabble at Hampton, ca. 1914

Marian Anderson; President Mordecai Johnson

President John Kennedy


President H. Patrick Swygert; Archbishop Tutu

Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library

Law School Library